Politics & Policy

Worries about Trump’s Generals Are Overblown

White House chief of staff John Kelly at a Cabinet meeting in 2017. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)
American presidents have turned to military men for counsel and service throughout history. That this president is doing the same shouldn’t be cause for alarm.

It seems that President Trump’s reliance upon retired and active-duty generals in staffing the upper echelons of his administration has raised concerns among a large number of well-informed people.

With retired Marine general John Kelly serving as White House chief of staff, retired Marine general James Mattis serving as secretary of defense, and Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster serving as national-security adviser, charges are being levied that the nation has embarked down a dangerous path. Some feel that the abundance of retired military officers in high-level government positions undermines the “non-partisan nature of the military” and decreases the public’s trust in its armed forces. Others are of the opinion that Trump’s reliance on military men will “throw off the balance of a system that for good reason favors civilian leadership.” These criticisms are relatively mild in comparison with those levied in the Boston Globe by journalist and academic Stephen Kinzer, who charges that Kelly, Mattis, and McMaster make up a modern military junta in the halls of the White House.

The historical fact is that the government of the United States has always relied heavily upon retired military men for advice and service. Three former generals — George Marshall, Alexander Haig, and Colin Powell — have served as secretary of state. A fleet admiral and a general — William Leahy and Haig — have served as White House chief of staff. One vice admiral and four generals — John Poindexter, Brent Scowcroft, Powell, James Jones, and McMaster — have served as national-security adviser. The military has also played strong leading roles in the nation’s intelligence community, with ten admirals or general officers serving as either the director of central intelligence or the director of national intelligence. Additionally, while only two former generals have served as secretary of defense since the position was established in 1947, of the 56 men who served as secretary of war before that position was replaced by the secretary of defense, eleven had served previously at the military rank of general. Even more important, twelve of our nation’s 45 presidents have held the rank of general, beginning with General of the Armies George Washington and ending (for now) with General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower, who left office in January 1961.

Our nation has a long tradition of calling upon the vast knowledge of national and international affairs that its retired military officers accumulate over a lifetime of service. So why is that tradition suddenly causing such angst? To answer this question, it is important to understand that the dynamic tension between civil authorities and the military has tightened over the three generations that have passed since World War II. The devastation of that war and the trauma associated with the introduction of nuclear weapons gave rise to a new dialogue between political leaders that had not previously existed.

A series of crises, from MacArthur’s insubordination during the Korean war to Kennedy’s conviction that the military deliberately misled him during the Bay of Pigs fiasco and the Cuban Missile Crisis, gave rise to a belief that civil authority must strengthen its control over the military lest it take too many liberties with its expanding powers and authorities. Books and movies such as Seven Days in May, cast against the background of the ongoing Vietnam War, raised the specter of a military coup in popular culture. There arose a sense that the military had failed the nation by not giving civilian leadership an accurate picture of on-the-ground conditions in that conflict. Later, botched operations in the Iranian desert during the Carter administration, the loss of over 200 Marines in Beirut during President Reagan’s eight years, the chairman of the joint chiefs’ public rejection of President Clinton’s desire to open military service to homosexuals, and the perception on the part of President Obama that the military was actively seeking to limit his options in Iraq and Afghanistan all contributed to a rising sense of unease with the civil–military relationship.

To be sure, there is a stark difference in the way career military officers and civil servants view the world, which presents challenges. However, while this difference is profound, it is not necessarily a bad thing: Diversity of opinions and perspectives can contribute positively to the process of addressing complex national-security challenges — if those in charge are willing to listen.

The broader strategic environment plays a larger role in the civil–military relationship than most acknowledge. The end of the Cold War brought turbulence within the relationship, the post-9/11 era saw a calming, and now many have grown tired with the War on Terror and concerned with the escalation of nuclear threats. Again, the relationship is dealing with strain.

Arguably, there is a correlation between these ebbs and flows, the degree to which the U.S. has to rely on its military, and the public’s opinion of that reliance. It wasn’t until the Cold War ended that the public conversation regarding civil–military relations really began. Bill Clinton, the first president in the post–Cold War era, was elected on the idea that it was time to refocus on domestic issues. This inevitably increased tensions within the military as its leaders pushed back on Clinton’s “peace dividend” and “Bottom-Up Review” initiatives, which dramatically cut the military’s budgets and power.

Shortly after Clinton left office, 9/11 happened and the country again found itself turning to the military. Here again, the U.S. populace came to rely on active military operations planned to protect national security. After nearly 20 years, many Americans — especially the young — are again questioning the role of the military in the day-to-day governance of the nation. At the same time, a new president who campaigned explicitly on both growing and strengthening the U.S. military has taken office and appointed several current and former generals to key positions, giving rise to new questions regarding the civil–military relationship.

In short, everyone should take a breath. Historically, the appointment of former and actively serving generals to high-level political positions has been the norm.

Some critics have said that the problem lies with the way President Trump makes use of “his generals” to prop up and add legitimacy to his policies, but it must be admitted from a historical perspective that Trump’s conduct in this regard is no more or less egregious than past presidents’. Harry Truman used the gravitas of General George Marshall to gain acceptance of his foreign-policy initiatives, even going so far as to have Marshall go to Harvard to announce the Marshall Plan, calculating that a “Truman Plan” would never gain enough support in the Congress. Fifty years later, President George W. Bush made a similar calculation, sending esteemed former general-turned–secretary of state Colin Powell to the United Nations to make the argument that Saddam Hussein possessed chemical weapons.

Other critics have charged that President Trump allows his military leaders too free a hand in the development of plans and operations. However, this, too, has been the norm throughout much of history. It is true that Presidents Lincoln, Johnson, Clinton, and Obama tended to view military operations as an extension of domestic politics, and micromanaged such operations accordingly. However, Presidents Madison, Polk, McKinley, Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt did not participate in operational, as opposed to strategic, war-fighting decisions during their terms.  

In short, everyone should take a breath. Historically, the appointment of former and actively serving generals to high-level political positions has been the norm. The service of former generals in high office does not signal the beginning of a military coup today any more than George Marshall’s service in the 1950s indicated an attempt to overthrow civilian authority then, nor does the service of retired military officers threaten to damage the reputation of the military so long as they provide considered advice and act in a responsible manner.

All evidence suggests Trump’s generals are doing just that. Americans should feel blessed to have men such as McMaster, who literally wrote the book on speaking truth to power, Kelly, who epitomizes selfless service, and Mattis, who sacrificed any semblance of a personal life to dedicate himself to his profession as a “warrior monk.” Instead, we find ourselves raising concerns about the undoing of our tradition of military submission to civilian control. Those concerns are part of a conversation as necessary and healthy today as it has always been, one we should all continue to have. However, they should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the military men serving in this White House are honorable, selfless, patriotic, in possession of great knowledge, and acting with only the best intentions.


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